‘Bang bang massage? You like? You wan smoke? I got smoke? Or bang bang? Sexy lady…I no you wan sexy lady an smoke eh? Strong white man. Long time in bed no? Come on man!’. Fumbling fingers and prying eyes were on us. The smell of sweat, marijuana and cigarette smoke filled the air. All around us, scooters buzzed, t-shirts screamed, roosters crowed and short-shorts wiggled. Such was the barrage of sound, colour, smell and touch that confronted us on our first day on the island.
‘Com gaaammern!’ (no thank-you), was our reply as we hastily started up the scooters, dust and chickens flying up around us, both us and them eager to escape the onslaught. ‘Very sneaky!’ cried our hopeful vendors, flashing broad, handsome smiles and crooked yellow teeth. Like flies on fresh dung, we sluggishly detached ourselves from the crowd, rotating the throttles lightly at first, before opening up the 125 horsepower Hondas and zig-zagging through the remainder of the crowd, chickens and dust.
Cat Ba Island is in northern Vietnam, close to the famous Halong Bay. Huge limestone karsts, rainforests and a plethora of insect life provide a stark juxtaposition to poverty, pollution and rife prostitution. We’d decided to hire scooters for the day – a ridiculously cheap $8 plus petrol – and have a look around the island. First stop was an old war grotto, which had been cemented into the depths of a jungle-covered, limestone mountain. We left the cacophony of insects and intense humidity outside, and I first smelled the musty aroma of mould…or was it something more sinister? Cool, monotonous concrete greeted me as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Despite the relief of being out of the hot sun, it didn’t take long to remember why this was built. I wondered whether the Viet Cong soldiers would run the gauntlet to the clear creek, at least 100 metres below, in order to bathe and fish. You could almost imagine the American planes, a thousand times louder than the chorus outside, cruising low down the valley towards the entrance, before pulling up and flying overhead.
After walking quietly through the sobering network of concrete chambers; operation slabs, briefing rooms and what would have been homes, we emerged back into the intense, noisy heat, and went down to have a drink at the home of the guy who met us at the entrance, who had demanded a dollar or two for him to show us around. We sat with a few Vietnamese men, drinking iced tea and smoking cigarettes, while we chatted to a young American army reserve who had just arrived, eager to check out the grotto.
Suddenly, the local lad beside me jumped up, pointing at the ground next to my feet. A snake was coiled up next to my ankle! As I jumped out of my plastic kiddies chair, the Vietnamese men started laughing uncontrollably. I noticed a small wound and a slow trickle of dark, viscous blood emerging not from my ankle, but from the snakes head. ‘Very funny!’, I exclaimed sarcastically, as I pulled another cigarette out of the pack. They continued giggling as I puffed away slowly, occasionally looking at them with narrowed eyes; their response being further bouts of laughter.
We were refreshed after our stop and decided to continue our drive around the island. Apart from the odd rock-slide, the road was in surprisingly good condition and wound through hilly rainforest, small towns, orchards and basalt outcrops, occasionally giving way to sweeping views over mangroves, prawn farms and the odd Russian mega-resort. There was very little traffic apart from the occasional herd of goats or wild-looking rooster, successful navigation of which necessitated keen adherence to the old mantra: ‘Expect the Unexpected’.
Graz was a little keener than I was, leaning confidently into sharp corners while the little wheels bounced nervously over stray rocks and patches of sharp gravel. I was mindful that we were many kilometres from the hotel and potentially days from decent medical assistance, so held back a bit. I later told Graz that I was going slower than him because the wheels on my scooter were smaller than his, but in hindsight I admit that I was just as much of a chicken as the ones I was trying to avoid. I’d had a close call with a boar a few days earlier, in the magical mountains of Sapa, and self-preservation was fresh in my mind. Later in the trip I would come face to face with the realities of motorcycle crashes; memories that haunt me to this day. Nonetheless, taking in the countryside was nice, and on the straights, going 100km per hour on one of those little scooters definitely got the adrenaline pumping.
We approached a Y junction and off to the right we could see a long causeway between the mangroves and the ocean, with what appeared to be small guest houses dotted along the swamps. We pulled alongside each other and agreed that this looked like a good spot for some lunch. The guesthouse we picked was adjacent to a fish farm, and after devouring a bowl of ‘Pho Bo’ (a.k.a. rare beef noodle soup), we decided to tell the young lad serving us that we enjoyed fishing, and asked if perhaps we could try some. We tried our limited knowledge of Vietnamese, saying: ‘Can cao!’, which we thought translated to ‘Cane pole!’, in the process acting out the universal winding-and-reeling charade. The handsome young lad ran off and emerged a few minutes later with two cane poles. Handing them to us, he beckoned us over to a small pond, surrounded by reeds, insects, the sound of frogs, and no doubt a healthy population of deadly snakes.
I inspected the gear he’d given us: a cane pole of around 8 feet long, with a 2 metre piece of heavy nylon tied clumsily to the end, to which was attached a rusty 1/0 hook. The lad handed us some bits of bacon (or was it dog? We were still confused by a recent meal in Hanoi…), and watched eagerly as we threaded it on. I had seen a few swirls in the water, so it was obvious there were some fish in there. It didn’t take long before I had a good bite, and struck to set the hook. The pole bent over, the line and wood straining under the pressure, and I was promptly bitten off. Looking at the lad, with a sense of disappointment and perhaps a small frown, we wondered whether he was just having us on; maybe the pool was full of piranhas. He ran off to get another hook and returned quickly. This one was not so rusty. I tied it on using a blood knot, and lobbed the bait back into the murky, green water.
Graz was next to have a bite, and after chasing the fish up and down the bank, managed to wrangle the fish out of the pool. Red and gold, piranha-shaped and with seriously mean-looking piranha teeth, and we were pretty sure they were piranhas! We pulled out a few more fish, each time giving the thumbs up to our mate, who squatted on his haunches, chewing a piece of grass, and grinned while returning the thumbs-up every time we got one.
We retreated to the shade of the guesthouse and ordered some Bia Hanoi, a delicious Vietnamese beer, which at around $1 for a cold, 500ml bottle, goes down a real treat. Reflecting on the fishing, we showed our Vietnamese mate a fishing magazine we had with us, and decided to give it to him to keep. With broad smiles we took off on the scooters, waving to our new friend and shooing off his menagerie of cute, albeit mangy, and potentially rabid, dogs.
One of the wonderful things about fishing is that it can take you to some amazing places, and can truly be a universal language, uniting rich and poor, old and young, east and west. Despite sometimes providing an ‘end-point’, it’s more about the journey than the destination. The good thing about fishing is that generally, wherever there is water, there are fish, and wherever there are fish, there’s an adventure.
Thanks for reading,